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History of Slavery

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A couple of articles on the history of world slavery that may pique your interest on a Sunday morning.

First, here’s a really interesting photo essay on African slaves in Iran in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Evidently, this is a really sensitive topic, especially among rich families who say these people were “servants,” not slaves. Sounds to me like white people in the American South telling themselves fairy tales about how their domestic slaves were almost like family, had better lives than they would have in Africa, etc.

Second is this essay on how the Haitian Revolution scared the pants off slaveholders in Cuba.

Slave rebels in Saint Domingue as well as in Cuba drew from diverse array of ideological influences. Ferrer cites the well-known example of a rebel slave captured and executed in Saint Domingue in 1791, who was reported to have carried gunpowder, an African talisman, and pamphlets on the Rights of Man: symbols of modernity, African tradition, and the French Revolution in a single pocket.

The mounting French Revolution seems to have exerted the single most significant influence, particularly in its more radical phases. But the signal traveled in both directions: though Ferrer does not mention it, in January 1794 the multiracial Saint Domingue delegation was received, as C. L. R. James movingly describes in The Black Jacobins, with great enthusiasm by the French Revolutionary Convention, which proceeded to abolish slavery throughout the empire.

Similarly syncretized intellectual and political traditions influenced slave conspiracies and rebellions in Cuba. In this context, Ferrer discusses at length the most important of these rebellions, the 1812 insurgency led by José Antonio Aponte, a free man of color, who was a carpenter, artist, and possibly a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería.

Aponte and his associates devised a plan to burn the sugar mills and attack the fortresses and armories of Havana, seizing weapons to arm the four hundred men who, according to Aponte, were organized and waiting to rise up when called. When the appointed moment arrived, Aponte issued a public declaration of freedom for the slaves that was later nailed to the doors of the palace of government.

The movement was violently defeated and Aponte was hanged on April 9, 1812. His rebellion took place in the period of ascendant anti-slavery activity throughout the Atlantic colonies that followed the Haitian Revolution, alongside plots and conspiracies in Trinidad, Jamaica, the United States, Puerto Rico, and Brazil.

Certainly the Haitian Revolution was on the mind of slaveholders in the U.S. from the moment it happened until the end of slavery. That was especially true after Nat Turner’s Rebellion. The difference between the U.S. and Caribbean though is that there simply weren’t enough slaves to have a successful rebellion in the U.S., whereas in most of the Caribbean, that was at least a possibility, if not a likelihood.

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